The impact of the Ap Sp Vs Dr Shacha case

The legal battle and its outcome in the last few months between Ap Sonam Phuntsho and Dr Shacha and her mother Tandin Bidha over a disputed Nu 18 mn amount has lead to much debate and discussion.

The case first came to the public domain through a social media post of Dr Shacha, hosted by a former BBS anchor and current affairs program host.  Dr Shacha’s authored post which was hosted ‘lock, stock and barrel,’ on the former anchor’s facebook page alleged judicial impropriety based on Dr Shacha and her mother’s legal battle against Ap Sp. The post spread like wildfire in the social media.

It invited not only a denial from Ap SP but also a libel suit which further inflamed the situation and led to an active international media interest, especially in some prominent outlets.

Bhutan, in these publications, jumped from the usual travel and lifestyle pages of GNH, chillies and happiness to the hard news international pages with questions over not only its judiciary but also its democracy.

The interest inside the country was no less as this became the trending topic on the social media and the media with a huge amount of public interest.

There were, of course, questions from some, especially those holding positions of responsibility on the credibility of the allegations and even of those making it. In certain sections there was also a backlash against what was seen as social media activism.

Some pointed out the less then perfect record of Dr Shacha’s sister who had made of with a huge and illegal loan from another bank.

The Judiciary concluded the case recently passing an order asking a government agency to auction the nine units. Tandin Bidha has in turn challenged the order alleging it is not in keeping with the verdict. The Supreme Court insists it is in line with the final verdict.

One result of all the events above is that the Judiciary in Bhutan has come under unprecedented scrutiny both domestically and internationally.

While worse allegations may have been made in the distant past against the Judiciary, the combination of a more wired citizenry and an active social media culture has affected the Judiciary’s image.

Another major impact has been on the mainstream Bhutanese media.

Initially many seasoned media professionals held their opinions on the post given that it had not gone through the many thorough processes of the mainstream media which are fact checks, getting both sides of the story rule and evidence verification.

Dr Shacha’s supporters, of course, asked why the mainstream media did not take up her campaign in the first place.

However, the strong public reaction and more importantly the open court libel case rapidly brought in strong media coverage on many facets of the case making the issue go mainstream.

In a collateral damage, the international media, none of whose journalists visited Bhutan to cover the case or understand the separate issue of the strong contributions of the young Bhutanese media to Bhutan’s young democracy, also carried unfair and untrue statements  against the mainstream media and journalists in Bhutan.

Bhutan’s young democracy was also on trial and again a bouquet of international journalists, from afar, judged the entire health of Bhutanese democracy through this one judicial case.

However, despite the generally poor quality of the international coverage, there was a lot of internal debate.

Though this case served as a catalyst, the main issue seemed to be a level of lack of faith in the judicial system and also a feeling on the lack of fair play within the official system in Bhutan.

The main lesson from this whole episode for public institutions, officials and even private individuals of influence is that every decision they make or every action they take will be subject to public scrutiny. This is the new reality of a democratic Bhutan with a much more aware and vocal citizenry.

However, a darker general side is the viral social media culture where emotions can fast outpace facts.

The task ahead for our young Bhutanese democracy is to understand and address the confusion and mistrust in these voices and in doing so make our system more transparent, accountable and ultimately stronger.

At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.

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